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Old Sunday, November 29, 2009
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Default Religious Policy of Akbar



Akbar was born on October 15, 1542, in Umarkot in Sindh. Akbar was proclaimed emperor in 1556 under the tutelage of his father’s (Humayun) trusted military commander, Bairam Khan. By 1560, Akbar took the complete reign of the empire into his own hands. Akbar’s was an apotheosis of rule in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The British who came few decades later found Akbar’s system of administration as their precursor. His religious policies, however, is the subject of controversies among the historians of the Mughal rule.


Diversity of sects and creeds was the source of strife in his kingdom. As a ruler, Akbar needed goodwill of his subjects across the board, in order for him to consolidate the empire. In this regard, he shaped his policies on the principle of religious tolerance known as Sulh-i Kull (Peace with all). This policy of religious tolerance was basically aimed at proper functioning of political and administrative machinery of the Empire.

Nevertheless, Akbar was not the first Muslim ruler in the sub-continent who showed religious tolerance towards his subjects. Muhammad bin Qasim had also adopted such policy of tolerance. Further, Zain al-Abidin introduced similar measures in Kashmir. In fact, Akbar formulated religious policies which not only caused uproars in the circles of orthodox Muslims, but his Muslim subjects considered him as an apostate to Islam. Most controversial policies of Akbar include abolition of jizya, immunity given to Hindu pandits and European Jesuits at the Ibadat Khana, prohibition of cow-slaughter, marriage reforms, discipleship, etc.

Perhaps, the most abhorred was the Akbar’s promulgation in 1582 of the Din-i Ilahi (The Divine Faith). Akbar’s so-called Din-i Ilahi was an amalgam of Sufism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Many among Muslims took Akbar’s Din-i Ilahi with a pinch of salt and considered that he had actually abandoned Islam. Vincent Smith and other European historian argue that Akbar had deserted the cause of Islam. On the other hand, Hindu writers, like Sri Ram Sharma in his Religious Policy of the Mughal Emperor, and Makhan Lal Roychoudhry in his Din-i- Ilahi, have generally held that although he followed a tolerant policy, he lived and died a Muslim.

The foundation for the misunderstanding of Akbar's religious history was laid by Blochmann in the introduction to his translation of Abul Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari; here he set the pattern for relying on Badauni, Akbar's enemy, rather than Abul Fazl, his friend, for studying Akbar's religious history. The crucial question about Akbar's religious activity is whether he established a new religion or a new spiritual order. The expressions used by both Abul Fazl and Badauni in this connection, however, are iradat or muridi (discipleship) but Blochmann habitually translates these expressions as “divine faith”, thus converting a religious order (or even a bond of loyalty) into a new religion.

Almost every historian including Badauni, the worst enemy of Akbar, unanimously concur on the fact that in his early period of reign Akbar was an orthodox Muslim. S.M. Ikram remarks:
“There is every indication that he began his rule as a devout, orthodox Muslim. He said all the five prayers in the congregation, often recited the call for prayers, and occasionally swept out the palace mosque himself.”

He showed great respect for the two leading religious leaders at the court, Makhdum-ul-Mulk and Shaikh Abdul Nabi. About the emperors’ respect for Shaikh Abdul Nabi, Badauni in his Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh that:
“For some time the Emperor had so great faith in him as a religious leader that he would bring him his shoes and place them before his feet.”

Moreover, Akbar showed his devotion to Khwaja Muin-ud-din, the great Chishti saint. He used to routinely visit the tomb of the saint with great devotion. He always entered Ajmer on foot as a show of respect for the saint. In addition, he built the Ibadat Khana, the House of Worship, which he set apart for religious discussions. The assemblies in the Ibadat Khana had been arranged by Akbar out of sincere religious zeal.


1. Squabbles among Theologians at the Ibadat Khana

The Muslim theologians were at daggers’ drawn among each on petty religious issues. Each tried to display his own scholarship and reveal the inabilities of the others. The two great theologians of the court, Makhdum-ul-Mulk and Shaikh Abdul Nabi attacked each other so mercilessly that Akbar lost confidence in both of them. His disillusionment extended to the orthodoxy they represented.

2. The Reformation Movement (1517–1648) in Europe

At the time of Akbar’s rule, the Western Europe was engaged in scuffle for dominium mundi between the church and the state. It followed by the movement of reformation enticed by Martin Luther. The movement ultimately curtailed the ecclesiastical power in Rome. Consequently the theory of caesaropapism came into being according to which the institution of king was made an ultimate authority. Some historians are of the opinion that this development must have influenced ambitious Akbar too who always appreciated new ideas. During his reign, laws pertaining to religious matters were entrusted to theologians who were next in position to the ruler.

3. The Scuffle between a Brahman and Qazi

In 1577, a case was brought before His Majesty Akbar in which a qazi blamed a Brahman of having confiscated a building earmarked for mosque. Further, the qazi blamed that the Brahman had also disregarded the Prophet of Islam and Muslims. The question of suitable punishment for the Brahman was discussed before the emperor, but, perplexed by conflicting considerations, he gave no decision. The Brahman languished in prison for a long time. After some time, the ulama decreed the execution of the offender and he was eventually put to death. This led to a fierce outcry. Akbar was troubled not only by this incident but by the general legal position which gave so much power to the ulama that he was at their mercy on such vital issues.

4. Akbar’s Policy of Toleration

Due to Akbar’s ambition for mutual tolerance among different faiths, Hindu pandits, Parsis, Jains, and Jesuits, among Muslim scholars, were invited to the religious discussions at the Ibadat Khana. They did not confine themselves to the exposition of their own beliefs, but reviled Islam and the Prophet in unrestrained language.

Mullah Muhammad Yazdi, the Shia qazi of Jaunpur severely criticized Akbar’s religious policies. Some of his courtiers like Qutb-ud-din Khan Koka and Shahbaz Khan Kamboh criticized the emperor in the court. There was an open rebellion broke out in 1581. Conspiracies were hatched to dethrone Akbar and place his brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim, ruler of Kabul, on the throne.


Akbar’s policy of religious tolerance was based on the precedents of the philosophy of Sufi saints. For all of his innovations, Islamic texts or precedents, genuine or spurious, were cited by his courtiers. Although Akbar did not claim to be a prophet or to establish a new religion, Islam lost its privileged position.

According to S.M. Ikram, religious policy of Akbar was largely aimed at securing goodwill of the masses. He writes:
“For this policy of religious tolerance and of giving an adequate share in the administration to all classes there can be nothing but praise, and it became a part of the Mughal political code.”

His attempt to set himself up as a jagat guru, the spiritual leader of the people, was a political mistake. In a nutshell, Akbar’s policy of Sulh-i Kull completely collapsed which affected the very fabric of the Mughal society. Vincent Smith rightly remarked that Akbar’s religious policy was “the outcome of ridiculous vanity, a monstrous growth of unrestrained autocracy, a moment of Akbar’s folly, and not of his wisdom”

Dr. Qanungo in his Sher Shah said:
“If Akbar had stopped with the remission of jiza, the prohibition of cow-slaughter, the partial Hinduisation of administration…. History would have exalted him to the rank of the greatest statesman and nation-builder of the world.”
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